Don John


Written by Kieron Monks
20 Thursday 20th August 2009

The superbly designed set is a feast for eyes and ears. We are introduced to an allegedly sleepy British village circa. 1978, except it looks more Vegas than Rotherhithe. Neon lights describe a fairground and church symbols, while a live band knock out bass-heavy party jumpers. Certainly a debt is owed to Baz Luhrmann's template for stylised era-splicing.

Into the mix comes our cold-eyed, hot-blooded anti-Romeo. Set in the year before Thatcher's election, John is the archetypal greed-is-good capitalist, servicing his whims while a community burns. He is introduced in shadow, smoking on the church roof as he contemplates the savage rape and murder which will provide the main narrative thrust. "Can't we just stay in tonight?" implores Nobby, his faithful sidekick, but he is only ever a consultant, ugly enough to play the Igor role.

For the first half, John's exploits are riveting, driven by the thrill and danger of the hunt. While he gorges on the buffet of doe-eyed simpletons, Emma Rice's direction adds heat to the montage. The dance is his most effective manoeuvre, slithering all over his weakening conquests until they are left breathless and broken, on their backs and wondering where John's gone. As the dutiful chorus opine, "You're the bullseye, he's the flying dart".

As John, Gisli Orn Gardarsson does fine, all smouldering vowel sounds and heartless asides. "Alright?" he chirps to a cuckolded husband who has just watched his bride writhing away her fidelity. He pulls off the kind of drug-addled psychosis perfected by Gary Oldman in Leon, sniffing and drinking his way to derangement. Unfortunately the supporting cast is generally that, mere meat for John's grinder and rarely coming to life.

John: Living the dream
This This is partly down to an average script, which too often reaches for glib sentiment. We hear Derek the vicar quoting Take That at a time of crisis, while the final, laboured moral message boils down to "care. All there is, is care".

But if anyone can get away with this, it's Kneehigh, who have always been able to establish complicity with their audience. Indeed they pull off a dashing finale, in which members of the audience participate in a slow-dance Barry White number. In a smart move from the cast, this reporter was coaxed onto stage for a memorable cameo, drawing gasps with his grace-laden footwork. Yet this was far from the highpoint of an ambitious, passionate production, strong on spectacle, but suffering with a confused identity.


Don John is on at the Battersea Arts Centre until 9 May. Click here for more on the Kneehigh Theatre Group.

Photography from Steve Tanner


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